School funds cut $3 million in Howard Ecker is first Howard executive to make such cuts

April 17, 1991|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Evening Sun Staff

When Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker reduced the county's public schools funding, he became the first Howard executive not to increase the county's allocation to education, a school official said.

Ecker introduced a fiscal 1992 budget yesterday that cuts $3 million from the current budget for the county Board of Education and is nearly $9 million less than the schools requested for next year.

Ecker's $270.3 million budget proposal would raise the tax rate by 14 cents to $2.59 for every $100 of assessed property value.

The executive's budget eliminated $8.8 million from the school board's budget proposal that would have been used to fund a negotiated 6 percent increase for county teachers in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Public schools would receive $137.4 million from the county next year, compared with $140.4 million this fiscal year.

That reduction comes in addition to $12.3 million school officials trimmed earlier this year at Ecker's request. It's a strange position for a school system that has been regarded as one of the state's most well off, having grown accustomed to double-digit percentage increases in recent years.

"No executive has ever done that," said Sydney Cousin, the school system's associate superintendent of finance and operations. "There have always been incremental increases."

Cousin noted that the cuts come in a year when the school system plans to open a new elementary school and a new middle school and enroll 1,300 more students.

State jurisdictions normally are required to maintain funding levels for their school systems, but Ecker gained permission to cut back when the General Assembly voted to eliminate that so-called maintenance-of-effort provision in the just-completed legislative session.

The school system's $188.4 million budget proposal sought $146.2 million from the county, $39.6 million from the state and $2.6 million from the federal government and other sources.

Ecker said he reduced the county's contribution because he did not want to fund pay raises for teachers when he has laid off 40 county employees and forced others to forgo merit pay raises.

School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said Ecker should have sought a higher tax increase to fund public schools, which he said have become Howard County's major selling point. He said he is looking to the County Council to restore at least part of the money.

"I hope everybody down there doesn't have the failure of political courage that Chuck had," Hickey said of Ecker, a former deputy superintendent. Hickey said a 26-cent tax increase was needed.

"To forgo an opportunity to collect that much is a real failure of leadership. He took a step toward mediocrity as far as the school system is concerned."

Ecker has often said during the budget process that he has been labeled a traitor for even considering such deep cuts.

Hickey noted that school officials had cut $12.3 million from his original budget proposal at Ecker's request and blamed the executive for a "$21 million cut" in his budget request. He said officials would be forced to renegotiate the teachers' contract if money is not restored but predicted that the public will demand more money for education.

"We're rather upset because he came to us at the beginning of our budget process and asked us to cut $13 million, and we did," school board member Susan J. Cook said. "There were deep cuts. There were serious cuts. Now he comes back to us and says that wasn't enough."

County Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, said eliminating teachers' salaries could lead to morale problems.

"Teachers have worked hard over the years to get decent salaries," said Pendergrass, who said many teachers go beyond their required responsibilities for children and parents.

Money also was deleted for merit pay increases for Howard Community College staff.

Still, the college would receive $8.2 million, or 0.7 percent more than last year. While the increase wouldn't be much, virtually every other department and county-related agency would be cut.

Ecker's overall proposal is $16.1 million less than the $286.4 million budget for the current fiscal year. His proposed tax

increase is expected to generate an additional $7.5 million and new fees will produce another $1.5 million.

According to government figures, the increase means taxes on a $150,000 home would rise $165 from $1,502 to $1,667, not counting any assessment increase. Taxes on a home valued at $200,000 would rise $220 from $2,002 to $2,222.

New fees Ecker proposed include a rise in admission taxes for entertainment -- charged on tickets for movies, plays and concerts -- from 5 percent to 7.5 percent.

Ecker also wants to impose a $5 increase in the $45-a-ton landfill fee and slight increases in charges for water and sewer, building and electrical permits, mobile home licenses, developer review and design fees, engineering fees and a 22-cent increase on the 28-cent monthly surcharge for 911 telephone service.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, who earlier this year said he would support a property tax increase of up to 14 cents, voiced approval of the budget proposal.

Feaga blamed the county's fiscal crisis on the previous administration of Democrat Elizabeth Bobo and said the tax increase, fee increases and the layoff announced Monday of 40 workers would help bring the county's finances under control.

The County Council plans to hold a public hearing on the budget April 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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